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Tara Lipinski, Johnny Weir preview Grand Prix Final men’s, pairs competitions

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There was some debate about the Grand Prix Final men’s competition two weeks ago, but now there is a clear favorite.

Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu is expected to become the first man to win three straight titles at the Grand Prix Final, the most prestigious annual figure skating competition outside of the World Championships (in Boston next spring).

The Barcelona event, which features the top six (or seven) skaters per discipline from this fall, takes place this weekend.

Icenetwork.com will provide live coverage of all programs for subscribers. NBC will air coverage Dec. 20 from 4-6 p.m. ET.

Here’s the schedule:

Thursday
Pairs short program — 2:30 p.m. ET
Men’s short program — 3:55 p.m. ET

Friday
Short dance — 1:05 p.m. ET
Pairs free skate — 2:20 p.m. ET
Women’s short program — 3:55 p.m. ET

Saturday
Free dance — 11:25 p.m. ET
Women’s free skate — 1:45 p.m. ET
Men’s free skate — 3 p.m. ET

Here are men’s and pairs previews with thoughts from NBC Olympics analysts Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir:

Men’s Field (Best Grand Prix qualifying total score)
Yuzuru Hanyu
(322.40 WR) — 2014 Olympic, World champ, 2013-14 GPF champ
Javier Fernandez (271.43) — 2015 World champ
Patrick Chan (271.14) — 2011-13 World champ, 2014 Olympic silver medalist
Jin Boyang (266.43) — 2015 World junior silver medalist
Shoma Uno (257.43) — 2015 World junior champ
Daisuke Murakami (252.25) — Grand Prix Final debut

Preview
Japan’s Hanyu is favored to become the first man to win three straight Grand Prix Finals, two weeks after he shattered the short program and free skate records under the decade-old scoring system at NHK Trophy in Japan.

The field includes the last three men to win World titles in Hanyu, Fernandez and Chan.

Spain’s Fernandez, the home-ice favorite who beat Hanyu at last season’s Worlds, was the only singles skater to win both of their Grand Prix series events this fall and could have been the favorite until Hanyu’s effort in Japan.

Chan returned after a one-year break from competition to win Skate Canada (over Hanyu) in October.

Jin and Uno, both born in 1997, are senior-level rookies this season and may be wildcards. Both are known for their strong quadruple jumps.

Lipinski’s Take
“Watching [Hanyu] skate in Japan, it’s hard to imagine what could beat that. But I think if there’s anyone that can beat that, it is Javi. If Yuzu skates the way that he did in Japan, and Javi skates clean, of course it’s going to go to Yuzu. But I feel like Yuzu can’t make that many missteps because Javi with three quads [in a free skate], he’s a threat. I would definitely say it’s Yuzuru’s to lose, but I don’t think it’s as wide of a gap as everyone thinks.”

Weir’s Take
“Riding the high off the performance at Grand Prix Japan, I don’t know how Yuzuru’s going to deal with that. I mean, it’s a lot of pressure he’s put on himself, to be better than himself. But even if he skated like that and made one mistake, he’d still have it all over the other men.”

“Patrick Chan is having somewhat of a slow comeback. He was great at Skate Canada and rough at Grand Prix France in the short program. Javi is great and wonderful, but he does consistently make mistakes. I think if you’re comparing those top three guys at the moment, Yuzu is the one to beat. And he is almost untouchable, if he can deliver like that [in Japan]. But he’s got Shoma Uno, who also is skating very well, gets big scores. But I don’t know if Shoma is quite ready to outscore Yuzuru.”

“You can definitely call Shoma Uno and Boyang Jin the rookies of the Grand Prix Final, it’s both of their first Grand Prix Finals, so it’s an obvious thing to say that. But in two [Grand Prix series] competitions they were both able to put out so many wonderful quads, quad Lutz being the most important. … If we’re considering that Yuzu can skate the same as he did at the Grand Prix of Japan, and everyone’s fighting for second, I wouldn’t mind predicting Shoma Uno as a possible silver medalist.”

MORE: Weir ranks Hanyu’s record skates with his all-time favorites

Pairs Field
Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford
— Canada
Yuko Kavaguti/Alexander Smirnov — Russia
Ksenia Stolbova/Fedor Klimov — Russia
Alexa Scimeca/Chris Knierim — U.S.
Yu Xiaoyu/Jin Yang — China
Julianna Seguin/Charlie Bilodeau — Canada
Peng Cheng/Zhang Hao — China

Preview
The World champions Duhamel and Radford were the only pair to win both of their qualifying events, but both Russian pairs were within two points of the Canadians’ top score this fall.

Notably absent are Olympic champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov and World silver medalists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, done for the fall due to injuries.

Scimeca and Knierim are the first U.S. pair to make the Grand Prix Final since 2007.

Lipinski’s Take
“What’s exciting is we’re missing a few of the top teams, and that’s a great opportunity for these other skaters, especially now having a U.S. team in the mix, for U.S. pairs that is such a milestone. Are [Scimeca and Knierim] going to win this event? Probably not, but I think this is sort of the time for them to start wedging their way into the top pack of pairs skaters. Meagan and Eric, I love them, there is just something that just sets their skating apart from every other team. It’s always so hard to predict who’s going to come out on top, but I think that they have it.”

Weir’s Take
“I am in love with the programs of Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov from Russia. They haven’t been so consistent this year, but what they have is a style and a presence that’s very, not sultry, but very empowered and very powerful to the audience. If they can get their technical elements together, I definitely think they’re my favorite to take the title. But expect strong performances from Duhamel/Radford. And it’s very exciting that Scimeca and Knierim are in the Final as well. I don’t know how they’ll factor into the medals at the Grand Prix Final, but it’s certainly wonderful that American pairs is back, stepping in the right direction with this team.”

MORE: Ashley Wagner eyes history at Grand Prix Final after ‘disaster’ in Japan

Katie Ledecky swims fastest at U.S. Open from B final

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For what must have been the first time in seven years, Katie Ledecky failed to qualify for an A final in one of her primary events on Friday morning. No matter, she swam the fastest 200m freestyle at the U.S. Open from the B final at night.

Ledecky, owner of 20 combined Olympic and world titles, clocked 1:56.24 to win the B final by nearly three seconds in Atlanta. In the very next race, American record holder Allison Schmitt touched first in the A final in 1:56.47.

Full results are here. The final day of the meet airs live on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

Ledecky has rarely lost domestically in freestyles from 200m through 1500m since she made her first Olympic team at age 15 in 2012.

She kept the streak intact, giving her a sweep of the 200m, 400m and 800m frees in the first three days of the U.S. Open, what could be the deepest domestic meet before the Olympic trials in June.

Internationally, Ledecky faced challengers in the 200m free in this Olympic cycle, unlike the last one. Italian veteran and world-record holder Federica Pellegrini won the last two world titles, with Ledecky missing the event this summer due to her mid-meet illness.

Ledecky ranks seventh in the world in the 200m free this year but likely would have been faster if she was able to race at her best at world champs.

Domestically, Simone Manuel has crept up, clocking 1:56.09 to lead off the 4x200m free relay at worlds to rank second among Americans in 2019. Manuel was the third-fastest American on Friday, recording 1:57.21, her fastest time ever outside of a major summer meet.

In other events Friday, Phoebe Bacon upset world-record holder Regan Smith in the 100m backstroke. Bacon, who like Smith is 17 years old, overtook Smith in the last 25 meters and prevailed by .05 in 58.63. Bacon, while shy of Smith’s world record 57.57, took .39 off her personal best to become the fifth-fastest in the world this year.

Olympic and world champion Lilly King dominated the 100m breaststroke, beating a strong field by .62 of a second in 1:05.65.

Chase Kalisz won a potential Olympic trials preview in the 400m individual medley in 4:13.07. Kalisz, the Rio silver medalist, held off 18-year-old Carson Foster by 1.69 seconds. Ryan Lochte, the 2012 Olympic champion in the event, was fifth, 6.65 seconds behind.

Rio Olympian Townley Haas won the men’s 200m free in 1:45.92, his fastest time since August 2018. Haas, the 2017 World silver medalist, improved to the second-fastest American in the event this year behind Andrew Seliskar.

Torri Huske won the 100m butterfly on the eve of her 17th birthday. Huske clocked 57.48, taking .23 off her personal best to move from sixth fastest to third fastest in the U.S. this year.

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Ester Ledecka stuns again, wins World Cup downhill from bib No. 26

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Consider 26 a lucky number for Ester Ledecka.

Ledecka, the snowboard champion who stunningly captured the PyeongChang Olympic super-G from bib No. 26, won her first World Cup ski race on Friday — also from bib No. 26.

Ledecka was fastest in a downhill at Lake Louise, Alberta.

She kept Swiss Corinne Suter from her first World Cup win by .35 of a second. Austrian Stephanie Venier was third. Mikaela Shiffrin was 10th in her weakest discipline. Full results are here.

“I am for sure more shocked than everybody here,” Ledecka said. “I was a little bit, not disappointed about the run, but I was not super satisfied. Then I was really surprised about the time.”

Ledecka, an Olympic and world champion in Alpine snowboarding from the Czech Republic, had a previous best Alpine skiing World Cup finish of seventh. The top-ranked racers all go in the top 20 of the start list.

Last season, Ledecka raced more World Cup skiing events than snowboarding events for the first time. She was forced to choose between world championships in skiing and in snowboarding due to schedules and picked the former with a top finish of 15th.

She’s undecided about her upcoming schedule. She could continue on the Alpine skiing tour with a super-G in Switzerland next weekend, or she could fly to Italy for a snowboarding event.

The women race another downhill and a super-G in Lake Louise the next two days. A full TV and live stream schedule for the weekend races is here.

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